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Auto d’Elegance : A Unique 1947 Bentley Is Refurbished With a French Accent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago, Gary Wales’ 1947 Franay-bodied Bentley was a “dilapidated pile of dog breath.” In pieces, parts of the body rusted through, the original chrome long gone--it was a major comedown from 1948, when the car with the sleek French curves swept honors at two major auto shows in a week.

Now, after 10 years of delicate restoration, the massive luxury car has a frogskin interior and a sumptuous, wet-looking exterior finish. Wales hopes it can revive its standing of 43 years ago by winning this weekend’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the most prestigious vintage auto show in the United States.

Wales, who restores Bentleys and Rolls-Royces in his Canoga Park shop, will be a sort of automotive David at the annual show, competing against Goliaths such as last year’s winner, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, and casinos that spend millions of dollars on their entries.

“I’m just a poor punk playing in the back garage,” said Wales, 52.

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Well, not really.

For 20 years, Wales has worked full time restoring cars, since quitting his job as a stockbroker to devote more energy to his hobby. In his shop, which employs three full-time workers and three part-timers, a handful of cars sit in various stages of reconstruction. All belong to Wales, who explained, “I won’t work on a car I don’t own.”

But as soon as the cars are finished, Wales sells them and uses the money to buy more cars for restoration. “The important part is saving them,” he said. “They will always be my cars, no matter who owns them.”

He regards the Franay Bentley as his ultimate performance. Heavily influenced by prewar designs, it is the only one ever built. The French-made Franay body was mounted on a British Bentley chassis for a wealthy Frenchman.

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In the 1950s, the car began its slide into obscurity. It passed from owner to owner, eventually crossing the Atlantic to the United States, and fell into disrepair.

Even so, Wales said he knew the car was a winner.

“This is the rarest Bentley in the world,” he said, monitoring the application of a specially formulated wax to the car’s fender. “There is nothing like this anywhere.”

Indeed, auto experts said the car is expected to be popular at Pebble Beach. Most agreed that it will take some award, but whether it is named best of show as Wales hopes remains to be seen.

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“It will be a major star,” said William S. Gillette, editor of the du Pont Registry, a buying guide for luxury autos. “It will never have less than a four-foot crowd around it.”

No wonder.

A confection of curves on a solid foundation, it stretches 19 feet from bumper to bumper and seven feet from fender to fender. Wales said he has turned down offers of $3 million for the vehicle, but some expert automobile appraisers say the value is more likely $1.5 million to $2 million.

Behind the front seat is a small bar--with a perch for the butler, of course--stocked with decanters of wine and flasks of Armagnac and cognac. The glove box holds a silver cigar holder. Instruments include a compass and altimeter. The original 1947 radio works. And tucked in one compartment is a $2 bill wrapped around a crystal, which friends gave to Wales for luck.

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“I don’t think there is a trick we missed,” Wales said proudly.

He even added a few.

In honor of the body’s French designer, Wales upholstered the interior with frog skins. About 1,300 tiny frog hides--tanned in the Philippines--cover the seats and instrument panel. “It’s my little French froggie car with my little French interior,” he said.

Another nod--or prod--to the French is the hood ornament. Wales said that if Lord Mountbatten could adorn the hood of his car with a miniature cannon, then no one should fault him for his custom ornament: a whistling frog named Zipiddy-Do-Dah skipping between two of the winged Bs that are the Bentley trademark.

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